Students, drugs, and a law of intended consequences

Pub date April 25, 2006

A few weeks before Marisa Garcia started her first semester of college in 2000, a cop found a pipe with marijuana residue in her car. The pipe was hers, so she fessed up, went to court, paid her fine, and thought the case was closed.

Soon after, Garcia, the daughter of a single mother with three other college-age children, lost the financial aid she’d been counting on to cover her tuition costs at Cal State Fullerton. She called her school and found out it was because of the drug charge: The Higher Education Act makes students with a drug conviction ineligible for financial aid. Garcia had never heard of the law before.

She’s not alone in her predicament. A study by the reform group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, released April 17, found that more than 180,000 students have lost or been denied financial aid under this law since it went into effect in 2000. California has had the highest number of students affected: a startling 31,000. The group hopes the overall numbers will spur Congress to repeal the law.

The law is intended to be a deterrent to drug use, but critics question its effectiveness. "Most people don’t find out about it until it’s too late," Tom Angell, campaign director for SSDP, said. "If kids are thinking about using drugs, they’re supposed to say, ‘No, I could lose my aid.’ But not a lot of people know about it until they come across it on their financial aid form."

Since Garcia lost her aid, the act has been amended to apply only to students who get busted while receiving financial assistance. But that doesn’t fully address the concerns of its critics, who see it as counterproductive.

"[The law] affects the very students whom the Higher Education Act was intended to assist in the first place when it was passed in 1965: the students from low- and middle-income families, the ones who cannot afford college tuition on their own," Angell said. "These are the people who, when they get a conviction and lose their financial aid, are forced to drop out."

Critics also contend that those punished for using drugs shouldn’t be penalized a second time for that same crime. "If you break the law, there is a system of justice that is designed to deal with you," said Tom Kaley, spokesperson for Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee, who supports the repeal of the law. "But then to have the Department of Education add another punch on top of that sounds a lot like double jeopardy."

That issue and others prompted the SSDP and the American Civil Liberties Union to file a federal class-action lawsuit March 22 seeking to overturn the law. That suit, in combination with the study, seeks to highlight how damaging the law has been.

"Now all members of Congress know exactly how many of their own constituents are devastated by the policy," Angell said. "They’re not going to be able to keep ignoring it year after year while tens of thousands of students lose financial aid. They’re going to have to do something about it." (Hunter Jackson)